Monday, July 16, 2012

Literary Prizes, the Newbery, and Counting Mistakes

This year, the literary world experienced a moment of surprise, as the Pulitzer Prize for fiction was left unawarded. Over at the New Yorker, Michael Cunningham published a two-part letter discussing the fiction jury's thought processes and methods. It's an excellent read, and some of the things he said seemed both profound and worthy of applying to our discussion of the Newbery.

"And, finally, one must confront the most nervous-making aspect of all the jurists’ and board’s duties: those who award prizes are wrong at least as often as they’re right. There is, for instance, the fact that Pearl S. Buck went to her grave with a Nobel Prize and Nabokov did not. That Dario Fo got one but Borges didn’t. The list of past Nobel winners is formidable—those Swedish prize-givers are sharp—but a list of non-winners would be surprising and not entirely reassuring."

What of those who have awarded the Newbery, who've given their time and effort and concerted energy to find the Most Distinguished Contribution to American Literature for Children? Is it true that they've been wrong at least as often as they've been right?

With that question in mind, I went back over the list of prior winners to see how many clear mistakes I could see. I tried to eliminate ones where the answer isn't clear (was Julie of the Wolves the right choice in 1973, or should Frog and Toad Together or Tales of a 4th-Grade Nothing have been the winner?), as well as the ones where my personal opinion is a ways off from the professional consensus (I think The View from Saturday over The Thief and Frindle in 1997 was criminal, but my outrage seems to be an isolated instance), and stick to the ones where there's less argument. I consulted Rachael when making this list, but I take sole responsibility for what's on it and what's not. If you disagree with me -- and these kinds of lists are made to be disagreed with! -- I hope you'll leave me a note in the comments.

Anyway, when all is said and done, I count 14 times in the history of the Newbery that the award winner seems to me to have been clearly chosen incorrectly:

1933: Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze beats Little House in the Big Woods. I actually liked Young Fu, but its pseudo-Pearl S. Buck-ness hasn't aged well, and Big Woods is often considered Wilder's finest moment.

1942: The Matchlock Gun defeats Little Town on the Prairie and The Saturdays. The Matchlock Gun is a deeply problematic book that's barely 50 pages long, and doesn't come close to matching up here.

1953: Secret of the Andes beats Charlotte's Web. Probably the worst decision in the history of the Newbery.

1955: The Wheel on the School outpaces Half Magic, The Children of Green Knowe, and The Courage of Sarah Noble. I'm thinking the committee really liked storks.

1958: Rifles for Watie beats Gone-Away Lake. Watie is the kind of book that isn't marketed as a children's novel anymore; its protagonist is 18 at the start of the book, and is joining a regiment to fight in the Civil War. It's also dreadfully tedious; of all the Newbery winners I've read, it might have been the hardest to slog through. (It's that or Smoky, the Cowhorse.)

1960: Onion John beats My Side of the Mountain. Joseph Krumgold has two Newbery medals, and Jean Craighead George has one. Those numbers should probably have been reversed.

1965: Shadow of a Bull wins over Harriet the Spy and The Book of Three. Almost as indefensible as 1953.

1974: The Slave Dancer beats The Dark Is Rising, Socks, Summer of My German Soldier, A Day No Pigs Would Die, and The House with a Clock in its Walls. We've been over this one before, but it's also pretty egregious.

1988: Lincoln: A Photobiography takes the prize over Hatchet. I like Russell Freedman a lot, but Hatchet is an all-time classic. I also question whether a book subtitled "a photobiography" really stands on its text alone.

1996: The Midwife's Apprentice wins over The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963. Apprentice is pleasant enough, but in retrospect, The Watsons was something of a game-changer. Uma Krishnaswami recently cited it in The Horn Book as one of the first books for children to successfully use humor while talking about racial issues.

1998: Out of the Dust beats Ella Enchanted. One of the strangest choices of the late '90s.

2006: Criss-Cross defeats Princess Academy, The Penderwicks, and Each Little Bird that Sings. I'm actually a huge Criss-Cross fan and will defend it vehemently, but the weight of critical opinion is not on my side when it comes to this year's award.

2007: The Higher Power of Lucky wins out over Clementine, A Drowned Maiden's Hair, and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Again, I love and will argue for Lucky (Susan Patron signed my copy at this year's ALA!), but I'm not in the majority when it comes to its Newbery-ness.

2011: Moon Over Manifest beats One Crazy Summer and The War to End All Wars. A year hasn't helped this award look better, though who knows what ten more years will bring.

There are some hard-to-live-with choices on that list, but I think overall, we have to give credit to the Newbery committees through the years for making a worthy choice well over the half of the time that Cunningham mentions. And I think, even in those years where the mistakes are clear, we should be gentle, recognizing that the task of any committee for a literary award is somewhere between daunting and Sisyphean.


  1. As a member of a snobby committee I can say that every winner of every award is just a reflection of the group of people on that committee that year. Winners aren't necessarily the best. They are the best that that particular group of people could agree on at the time.
    In other news I'm starting a mock fight with you mock newbery people. We've all been invited to present at the BEST training, but they gave y'all 40 minutes, and me only 20! Apparently picture books are not as important as your precious newbery contenders ;)

  2. Oh snap!

    But in seriousness, are we back to back? Can we just split the difference? It will just be me - no Sam - so I'm happy to do 30 minutes.

  3. I think we are back to back. We could do 30 and 30 but then I won't get to mock fight you! Plus I'd feel bad if you've already prepared 40 minutes of material.

    1. We could engage in dueling stringed instruments. But you'd win. :P

      I haven't prepared any minutes of material yet, so it is, as the hippies say, all good.

    2. Copacetic, as the beatniks say. I'll email Eileen and see if we can do a 30/30 split :)

  4. As a member of the 2011 committee, I'd obviously disagree with my year being on there, and I have about 12 pages of single spaced type extolling the virtues of Moon Over Manifest to prove its worth. But the notes of a committee member are top secret, yada yada yada, so I'll just leave it at this: I think you're wrong. I was going to comment back when you bashed Moon in a review, but it would have taken me days to formulate a satisfactory response... and I probably would have again written 12 pages single spaced. (But I do also really love OCS and War to End All Wars, so it's hard to argue with that part of your point.)

    I'm with you on 1996, though. Watsons is just fabulous. And I dig the heck out of your blog!

    1. Thanks for reading and for the kind words!

      I'd actually be really interested in hearing your views about MoM, especially as you're someone who's spent a (very) significant amount of time with it and can argue passionately for it. And, for what it's worth, my daughter agrees with you rather than me, and she'd never have encountered the book without it winning the Newbery, so that's one satisfied child right there!

      One other note is that it got harder and harder to figure out what to put on this list as it got more recent. There's pretty much a consensus in the field as to 1953 and 1965 being mistakes, but once it gets past about 2000, I had a hard time finding as much agreement between experts, between Rachael and I, and even between myself, if that makes any sense at all. (And given how much I love Criss-Cross and Lucky, maybe I'm part of the problem in generating consensus ;) It gets me wondering how the 1953 award, just to take an example, was viewed in 1954, or even 1964, and how long it took for opinions on some of those older ones to settle where they are today.

      Thanks again!

    2. Tell you what; if and when we meet at an ALA in the future, I'll talk your ear off about the things I loved about Moon! Will you be in Seattle?

      Interesting thoughts in that second paragraph there. I will say that when I've spoken to kids about my experiences on the committee, I always use 1953 as an example of how good books don't have to win the gold... and at one of my presentations last year, my dad happened to be in the crowd. He actually was offended by my dismissal (in his opinion) of Secret of the Andes, which he had loved as a kid!

    3. That sounds great to me! I don't yet know if I'll be in Seattle -- it depends on committee appointments -- but I'll definitely be at Annual.

      And that's really interesting about your dad! I guess every book has its reader, to be Ranganathan for a moment :)

  5. Like others, I have to say that sitting on the Newbery opened my eyes to the process. I think that talking about choosing the "wrong" book not only diminishes the incredible amount of work those sitting on the committee have done, but it also seemingly takes away from the book that won.

    Change out a single person on any given committee and the results may change. After all, the idea of literary quality can mean different things to different people. Everyone comes to the table from a different place, in life - career - etc.

    That said, there are books that have not won that I love! But instead of saying the committee was wrong, I try to figure out what it is about the winning book that made it the most distinguished to them.

    1. Nicely said, Stacy! I'll never criticize a committee's decision again... I may not agree with the choice, but like you said, I'll at least look for distinguished characteristics in the winning book.

  6. Thank you for the list, Sam. While it is a bit critical, it is eye opening. I have a goal to be overprepared for the MD Mock Newbery this year, and in doing that, I have turned on a new and deeper critical eye that I was unaware I even owned.

    For starters, I never stopped to realize Apprentice and Watsons were published the same year. I love both books, and was impacted by both stories...but to decide which one should have the medal? Well, this is a whole new thinking cap to wear. (And it's daunting.)

    So far, I'm enjoying searching for 2012 titles with 2013 Newbery potential, but I want the process to be more meaningful than a pile of books and a folder filled with notes. Without discussion, without reviews to rebuttle, without another's thoughts to absorb, then the process doesn't make the person grow.

    So, thanks again.

    1. Aw, thanks for the kind words! And I'm totally with you on the idea that discussion is the best friend of evaluation.